Ghost Master Review

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Publisher: Empire Interactive
Developer: Sick Puppies

Platform: PC
Reviewed on PC
Windows System Requirements: Pentium III 450 MHz, 128 MB RAM, 3D video card

Take control of a team of ghosts to scare the living and otherwise manipulate them to your own ends. This strategy/puzzler/simulation offers a light-hearted series of missions to be completed by a team of ghosts of your own choosing. Scare the mortals, power your ghosts, then dive back in for more. Released earlier in Europe, Ghost Master has now made its way to North American PCs. An Xbox version is in the offing.

Rob de los Reyes

There's something both refreshingly restrained and, at the same time, wonderfully ambitious about Ghost Master. It could have gone for "dark and brutal" giving your ghosts the power to slaughter or maim. It could have had ten more levels, perhaps none with any interesting new goals but just there to lengthen out the game and showcase special effects. There are, in fact, many things developer Sick Puppies could have been tempted into – things that many other developers have been tempted into in their own games – and none would have added to Ghost Master's tight and self-consciously quirky play. At the same time, here's something perhaps not quite on the scale of complexity of Impossible Creatures but certainly ambitious in its offering of different ghost units and powers and open-ended problem-solving. The product of this restrained ambition may not deliver any deep revelations, but it does deliver solid entertainment. As you huddle in front of your PC on a chilly Halloween night (you do that, right?), you could do much worse than to take a pass on Shannen Doherty's Scare Tactics in favor of executing a few of your own.

Ghost Master casts you in the role of Spookmaster General. You lead a sort of afterlife ministry of the interior tasked with exerting the will of the dead on the world of the living. Most of the time, you'll just need to scare the bejeezus out of every mortal in sight, but sometimes you'll need to influence the mortals to do something specific for you. But Ghost Master, which, at first glance, comes off as a better-looking version of The Sims, plays more like The Anti-Sims. Unlike The Sims, you can't directly influence the behavior of the mortals. If you need one of the people to pick up a book, you'll have to figure out how to coax him into doing so indirectly. As a result, notwithstanding the little meters attached to people, Ghost Master also plays much more like a strategic puzzler than a pure simulation. To achieve your goals, you command a squadron of ghosts that range in total power and abilities. Nearly every ghost is capable of a good scare trick or two, but some actually attract or calm the mortals. Some ghosts roam, others are stationary. How you select, deploy and utilize the specific powers of your spectral squad are the central game challenges.

The game is separated into scenarios, some of which are goofy parodies like The Blair Wisp Project, Full Mortal Jacket and Poultrygeist (complete with a house built on an ancient chicken burial ground), that last anywhere between ten minutes and close to an hour. The titles say it all. The overriding theme of Ghost Master is silliness. Happily, that silliness isn't devoid of smarts. In addition to a scenario's primary mission goal, each also offers the chance to rescue one or more ghosts that you may then add to your team. Replay value comes from more than just the multiple goals. There is also a scenario scoring system that grades you on quality, quantity and speed of scaring. There are even awards you can cash in to spend on new ghost powers. Some of that replay value is contrived – it's often impossible to finish quickly while still freeing new ghosts – but the forced fit makes it no less enjoyable.

Scare Me Up a Victory

The physical space of each scenario is compact, but attractive. Some levels are outdoors, others indoors, but each features a smallish play area surrounded by void. Candidly, they're weird-looking at first, but grow on you as you start to appreciate the total visual package, including menus that evoke an almost board-game-like feel. Not surprisingly, the real graphical show is in the animation. Not only are the ghost powers funny and well-illustrated – from a hail storm of fish to a ghost that peels itself in half – but so too are the reactions of the mortals who flail, scream and even faint dead away when sufficiently scared. Again, none of the animations are gory (even the seeping blood power is kind of cheery), nor do any seem overplayed. Since ghosts keep running their powers until you change their orders, levels are usually awash with activity just waiting to be noticed. Although this occasionally leads to some overly frenzied scroll-and-click play on the larger levels, on the whole, Ghost Master keeps a fairly tight rein on the pacing.

If anything, Ghost Master struggles not from too hurried a pace but from too much slack. Because you're only influencing the mortals indirectly, sometimes there's nothing for you to do but set your ghosts and wait for something to happen. Herein lies the first of two frustrations. Your ghosts can only use their powers when they have sufficient plasm to do so. Although you start with an initial pool of plasm, you have to scare people to earn more and to keep your existing pool from slipping away. But sometimes, you need specific people to do specific things. Should you accidentally scare a needed person – something you might do before you know he's necessary to solve a puzzle – you'll just have to replay the level. Other times, it's not so much a question of timely knowledge or quick clicking as it is of dumb luck. It will drive Type A gamers bonkers to take all the correct actions in terms of ghost placement and power selection only to fail because the mortal's AI routine has him turn right instead of left. It would have been worth a little "cheating" in the AI to have characters recognize when the player has the created the right set-up and nudge things along.

On the other hand, the reliance on the odd bit of luck might not be too troublesome but for the second frustration – Ghost Master sometimes has trouble delivering its clues. Clues to the mission goals tend to be delivered in the form of short cut-scenes triggered by your actions or by chance. The problem is that almost any in-game event interrupts the cut-scenes without any way for you to watch them again. That lack of polish is jarring in an otherwise sharply executed game. More to the point, without those clues (and sometimes with them), the puzzles can be obtuse. When the obtuse puzzle also turns out to be one of those that requires a little luck, the lack of feedback makes it easy to get pushed off the right track and onto the completely wrong one.

Dead Can Dance

But those two frustrations are just that. They're irritations, not actual show-stoppers. While perfectionists (which is to say, most gamers), will be annoyed at waiting for a certain special someone to make his way to the hospital basement, you need only achieve certain story objectives to move on. The major sense of Ghost Master is not one of powerlessness, but one of controlled possibility. Although you can't throw together any old team and expect to beat every level, the number of ghosts, powers and potential solutions to most problems make it unlikely that any two players will experience Ghost Master in quite the same way. Although, even with replay value, Ghost Master is a little on the brief side, it feels just the right length. And given the game's discounted shelf price, the relative brevity shouldn't be too troublesome. Besides, there's something to be said for taking a pass on a six-month soul search in favor of quick good time.

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This page contains a single entry by Editor published on October 6, 2003 2:38 PM.

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